Tag Archives: David Whitaker

The Reign of Terror

3 May

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

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vlcsnap-2013-02-10-18h36m59s72“The streets of Paris, strewn with the carcasses of the mangled victims, have become so familiar to the sight that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice. The mob think no more of killing a fellow man – one who is not even an object of suspicion – than wanton boys would of killing a cat or a dog.

“It’ll be our most Christmassy Christmas special yet,” adds Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat.

Of course not. A little joke. But it’s to remind us how what we expect from our favourite family drama series has changed during its five decades on TV. These days, every fifth or sixth episode is Christmas. When Doctor Who began, every third or fourth serial featured a much-loved mass homicide from history.

The quoted passage comes from the The Times of London, Monday 10 September 1792. It’s a report on the September Massacres, a bloody foretaste of la Terreur; the French state’s attempt to establish control over the population through the legal and largely unfettered use of violence – literally reigning through terror. It’s a revolution within a revolution. “Terror is nothing other than justice,” says the 35-year-old Maximilien Robespierre, President of the National Convention. “Prompt. Severe. Inflexible.” He believes it to be a virtuous form of government. The word of a virtuous man, he insists, should be enough to condemn a traitor. But Robespierre’s licence to murder is not used merely to help hasten the obliteration of the ancien régime. The merest whisper of treachery is enough to condemn any enemy – a business rival, an unfaithful lover, an enviably successful friend – to death by the guillotine, as grotesque an invention as has ever been conceived by man. By the summer of 1794, the air in Paris is thick with fear, paranoia, and the stench of thousands of rotting corpses heaped high at the Errancis Cemetery. Soon, Robespierre himself will be added to the pile. In two virtuous pieces.

Forgive the lecture. But it’s important to bring the ferocious brutality of the real Reign of Terror into focus. In 1964, this was considered a suitable playground for a children’s serial. Indeed, BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman thought bleating bug-eyed robot men to be a far less appealing subject matter. And what makes Doctor Who’s teatime Terreur for tots so remarkable is the fact that it does not shirk from portraying the savagery of life in France in 1794. The first episode, especially, is a masterpiece of slowly unfolding horror.

But it begins with whimsy. The Doctor, in a particularly peevish mood, is convinced that he has brought homesick companions Ian and Barbara back to present-day England. They’re not so sure, and to prevent their pilot abandoning them in what could be anywhere or anywhen, they cajole him into joining them outside. Assured writing meets skilled performance in a lovely scene that would shine in any Doctor Who script from the last 50 years. Over one shoulder, Ian soft-soaps the Doctor. “Of course you’re in control,” he smarms. “And your important research must be completed.” Barbara is at the Doctor’s other shoulder, brushing away invisible dust, or possibly space dandruff. When it comes to Barbara, the Doctor’s a pushover. She’s his first human girl crush – and who can blame him? Meanwhile, William Hartnell hilariously double-takes between them. But despite this left-right charm offensive, it’s the suggestion that they might all go for a drink that finally wins the Doctor over. Perhaps it’s a little reflection of real life. Is this is how Hartnell’s colleagues dealt with his more dyspeptic mornings? “Of course you’re in control, Bill.” It’s easy to imagine many a studio quarrel settled over a lunchtime stout at the White Horse, Shepherd’s Bush.

This bright, optimistic start is designed to lend shadow to what follows, as, from the moment the Doctor’s curiosity takes over, the travellers fall into ever darkening danger. In a farmhouse some miles from Paris, they discover documents signed by Robespierre. “The Doctor’s put us down right in the middle of the French Revolution!” boggles Ian. “The Reign of Terror,” adds Barbara. And that’s our lot. We’re trusted – required even – to recognise the name Robespierre and immediately grasp the implications of this. (More explanation would doubtless be needed today; the Revolution has long been absent from the compulsory secondary school history syllabus. The subset of the population now most likely to know the name Robespierre is DWM subscribers. So, one point to Sydney Newman there.)

We meet on-the-run aristocrats Rouvray and D’Argenson. The militia is on their trail; a bickering band of bloodthirsty soldiers, grinning like Alsatians. Which, given that this is northern France, they may well be. Our bold Rouvray almost talks his way out of trouble. Playing on the memory of his lost patrician authority, he orders the soldiers to stand down. One man surrenders his musket, but our arrogant aristo pushes his luck. In an especially nuanced piece of writing, we’re give a flash of insight into both sides of the class conflict. “You can give them uniforms,” sneers Rouvray, “but they remain peasants underneath.” Without any order from his officer, one of the peasants shoots Rouvray dead. “A desperate attempt,” observes the commander. “And it very nearly worked.” The camera shies away as a second shot is fired. D’Argenson has been murdered. We know this from the soldiers’ gleeful laughter.

Already roaring with power, the episode accelerates toward a truly tremendous climax. Ian, Barbara and Susan are taken captive. “If any of them speaks,” says the commander, “shoot them.” Completely helpless, they can only stand in silence as their fate is decided by the squabbling soldiers. And then the farmhouse is set alight. But the Doctor is still inside! The fire spreads rapidly – through a series of generally excellent model shots – and the Doctor collapses, overcome by smoke. The camera pans up as the flames rise ever higher, and the incidental music – from Stanley Myers, and one of Doctor Who’s finest scores – playfully, sarcastically, quotes La Marseillaise. An anthem for life and liberty, just as death and disaster seem inevitable. Hold on flames. Roll credits. What a cliffhanger! They don’t make them like that any more.

The first episode is all about establishing the stakes we’re playing for. It’s made perfectly clear again at the start of the second, when we’re shown the falling blade of the guillotine. It’s mere moments of stock footage, but no less chilling for it. (And this is not some arcane threat from a bygone age. It’s worth remembering that the guillotine was used in France until 1977, and its blade was still hanging in the air until capital punishment was finally abolished in 1981.) “You have no rights,” barks a judge. He’s talking to Ian, Barbara and Susan, but the director has him looking right down the lens of Camera Two, directly at us. “You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged.” And with that, we are dragged away to the Conciergerie prison.

Here, writer Dennis Spooner – a true Doctor Who natural, giving us his first work – looks to leaven this brutal business with a few grains of humour. He’s hardly generous with it – though he will be in future – so perhaps script editor David Whitaker is staying his hand. We meet the lumbering jailer, his working class background conveyed through the broadest northern accent, and Jacqueline Hill does a wonderful comic reaction to his bad breath. But really, it’s the merest gesture toward fun. Although the Doctor and others later run rings round the jailer, he’s still a total horror, motivated by lust, greed and fear in turn. He leches over Barbara, offering her freedom if she – though he doesn’t use these words – has sex with him. Barbara merely turns and smacks him round the face. Marvellous.

“Lock ’em away!” bellows the jailer. “In there. It’s a cell I keep… for my special guests! Har har har!” Barbara and Susan are dragged into Doctor Who’s most bleak and dispiriting dungeon of all time. But it’s Ian who seems to get the premium accommodation. His cell is on film, and comes with a hot and cold running storyline. He’s tasked with finding an English spy, James Stirling. “Ask Jules Renan…” whispers a fellow prisoner with his dying breath. “At the sign of… Le Chien Gris.” But what’s with the sudden French? The TARDIS translation circuit must be on the blink – or, like Siri on the iPhone, doesn’t work well at low volume. (“I do not know what that means. Searching Index File for the sign of Lush He Angry.”)

The Reign of Terror comes with a neat little story of plot and counter-plot. It also gets to the heart of the dreadful irony of that time. Robespierre’s idea of justice was based on trust and duty, but no one could be trusted. However, our Doctor Who serial does seem clear on which class of citizen is the more virtuous. Barbara and Susan are rescued from the guillotine by upper-crust counter-revolutionaries Jules and “my young friend” Jean. They’re a sweetly affectionate pair who insist on calling each other by name with every other line (“I’ll go now, Jules.” “Take care, Jean.”), and they put their trust in the English travellers immediately, just as posh Rouvray and D’Argenson did before them. However, any ordinary working man we meet immediately proves devious, truculent and unreliable. The soldiers, the jailer, a roadworks overseer, a shopkeeper and a physician are all ready to abuse or denounce our heroes for personal gain, in the name of the glorious revolution.

But the story, having given us these rules, then subverts them to work its pivotal trick. Citizen Lemaitre, overseeing the Conciergerie, seems to be working for Robespierre, but turns out to be the English spy that Ian is looking for; our Mr Stirling having surely been dispatched on this undercover mission thanks to his having the biggest hooter north of Boulogne. Meanwhile, Barbara takes a shine to Jules’ friend in the resistance, the dashing Leon Colbert. Attentive and seductive, there’s a whiff of Pepé le Pew about Leon as he kisses Barbara’s hand and plies her with wine (“C’est magnifique, mon belle fromage!” he almost but doesn’t quite say.) But Leon proves a stinker in every sense. He’s a double agent for the State, and it was his treachery that led the soldiers to the farmhouse at the start of our tale. Soon, Leon has Ian chained up and ready for torture, but even he is allowed a sympathetic moment. “If you’d seen what France was like six years ago, you’d understand,” he says. “I do understand,” replies Ian. “But I can’t help you.” Actor Edward Brayshaw gives a wonderful, rich performance as Leon. It’s a tragedy that it’s almost entirely confined to the lost fourth and fifth episodes of this story.

So where is the Doctor amidst all this cruelty and tyranny? Early on, Susan tells us that the Reign of Terror is his favourite period of history. One might wonder how such a bloody time can be anyone’s favourite, but the Doctor clearly has a taste for revolution. It’s fitting, given how many he will go on to foment across the galaxy. He’s already managed a couple in the few weeks we’ve known him.  However, the Doctor’s particular affection for the Terror is also a writerly sleight of hand, and one that shows Doctor Who undergoing a revolution of its own. Up to this point, the Doctor has needed history teacher Barbara’s insights to help him cope with life in the past. But Dennis Spooner requires the Doctor to be able to slip straight into a position of authority. And so it is that his special study allows him to know the lay of the land and be able to bluff his way at the highest level. We’ve long since taken this sort of thing for granted; that the Doctor knows everything, and can charm his way to the top. These days, he even has a piece of paper that can do the job for him. Here, it’s mostly played for fun, and leads to The Reign of Terror’s best gag, and it’s a visual gag. When the Doctor barters for the uniform of a Regional Officer of the Provinces, it seems to be only the matter of a jacket and a sash. But the writer and director are deliberately holding back the rest of the outfit for the Doctor’s big entrance at the Conciergerie. He comes down the steps like a Vegas showgirl, swishing his cape and with the greater proportion of an ostrich fanning out from the top of his head. Hartnell is clearly in his element.

Sadly, The Reign of Terror rather fizzles to a close in its sixth and final episode. Ian recalls another clue whispered to him in prison. “Nothing specific,” he says. “Just something about Barras, a meeting and a sinking ship. No! The Sinking Ship.” It’s hardly short on detail, so we’re left to wonder what Ian might have considered a specific message. Perhaps he expected a phone number. He and Barbara head to the pub in question, where politician Paul Barras is trying to recruit the next ruler of the country. As our heroes dress as innkeeper and wife, it all feels a little like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or one of those clumsy plays that the contestants used to act out in the final round of The Generation Game. Napoleon Bonaparte turns up – thoughtfully dressed like Napoleon Bonaparte to aid recognition – and he and Barras make a deal for France while staring intently at the tips of each other’s noses, as if they’re about to kiss.

But there’s one last shock to come, one last reminder of the horror. Back in the fourth episode, the Doctor met with Robespierre and debated the merits of his policy of state-sponsored murder. Even Robespierre himself is granted an understanding emotional beat. “Do you think I want this carnage?” he wails. “What a memory I shall leave behind if this lasts!” And here is the memory of it, given back to us in a TV series for children that adults adore. In the final episode, we’re shown fate catching up with Robespierre. He is shot, off screen, but then dragged out before us, still alive, his hand clamped over his shattered jaw, and blood running through his fingers. It’s wildly violent and vivid by Doctor Who standards, and a last, sobering reminder of why the series doesn’t tackle real history any more.

It’s not that history is in any way less exciting than aliens and monsters, it’s just that if you subtract those aliens and their devious manipulations, then we’re only left with humans committing acts of barbarity against other humans, and often for no other reason than greed, envy and plain old-fashioned hate. Some monsters are simply too monstrous for teatime; especially now that Doctor Who looks more ‘real’ than ever. These old episodes, black and white and presented as if from under a proscenium arch, still have a power, but keep us at a safe distance. Today, with single-camera filming – and likely 3D filming coming soon – we’d be right in there; amongst the cruelty and the violence, pushed up against it. It can’t be done. Especially not with Christmas coming round as often as it does. You don’t want Robespierre’s splintered jaw with your sherry trifle.

But then, perhaps it’s right that not every Doctor has been allowed free access to the more grown-up bits of history. It’s certainly fortunate that it was his first incarnation who blundered into Paris at this time, and not his third. The Third Doctor would share a cheeky Beaujolais with the dandy Leon Colbert, and then get the good guys and the bad guys thoroughly confused. “Jehosaphat!” he’d say. “I should have known he’d be behind all this!” Jo Grant would be slow on the uptake. “Who, Doctor?” she’d squeak, and her friend would have rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. “Did you also fail basic French at that school of yours?” he’d have huffed. “Lemaitre, Jo!”

 

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DVD extras

url-1The big bonus promise of this DVD is an attempt to recreate the lost fourth and fifth episodes of The Reign of Terror using animation. This has clearly drawn upon the efforts of many talented and hard-working artists, to whom must go much praise. Unfortunately, the finished product, due to how it has been compiled and directed for presentation here, can only be judged – with a heavy heart – a failure.

The surviving camera script for part four, The Tyrant of France, tells us that there would have been 52 camera shots in an episode of roughly 24 minutes’ duration. So there would have been a shot change, on average, around twice a minute. At one point in the animated episode four, the shot changes three times in one second. Now, this animation shouldn’t follow the original camera script verbatim, and one understands that additional close-ups are necessary to draw our focus. But here, our ‘camera’ spins wildly around the room. Was there no basic storyboard to work from? The result is frenetic, bewildering at best, and thoroughly distracting at worst. You try to follow the story, but each needless shot change is like someone bellowing in your ear.  Early in the fourth episode, Barbara is concerned that Susan is running a fever, but Leon Colbert tells her not to worry. “We’ve done all CUT! we can CUT! Barbara CUT!” says Leon. “Oh CUT! it’s CUT! probably CUT! a chill CUT!” he adds. But Barbara thinks Susan needs a doctor. “You must CUT! know someone CUT! we can trust?” The director seems to have no sense of how many shot changes the poor human brain can cope with. It’s a quiet little character scene.

The animation is also disappointingly inconsistent. In a sequence at the Conciergerie, the Doctor changes face from shot to shot. One moment he looks like an acquisitive turnip, the next a rather crestfallen pufferfish. Within the generous freedoms of the rules of caricature, each of these might be said to be fair descriptions of William Hartnell’s Doctor. But it’s the flicking back and forth between them that’s the terrible distraction; and then there’s the ‘rotoscope’-traced moments of sudden movement, which feel like they come from another place again. It’s as if the director is cutting madly between two or three different animations of the episode, each tackled in a different style.

What most boggles the mind is that, six years ago, the Doctor Who DVD range gave us animated versions of the two missing episodes of The Invasion. It was a production superior to this in every way; calm, consistent and confidently unshowy. Why the huge leap backwards? Some will claim that any reconstruction is better than none, but surely it’s reasonable to at least expect some progress in the field? Some will also say that to call this project a failure is too cold. In justification of that, it’s worth remembering that the sole purpose of Doctor Who is to transport us to another place, even for just a few fleeting moments – to dislocate us from the here and now. It takes a huge amount of work, from every department, to make the entire production process of Doctor Who dissolve away. One misspoken line, one untucked monster costume. An unconvincing model, green screen or unsuitable soundtrack. Any of these things – and a thousand others – will bring us crashing back to our ordinary sofa in our ordinary living room. But this animation makes no effort at discretion. It’s trying too hard to be noticed. It’s just too… animated. For any hope of feeling transported to the summer of 1794 with the Doctor and his friends, then your only option is to, well… close your eyes and just listen to the soundtrack. And if that isn’t a failure, then what is?

The production documentary Don’t Lose Your Head focuses on The Reign of Terror’s sometimes troubled days in the studio, with help from the detailed memories of Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian) and production assistant Timothy Combe. Director Henric Hirsch suffered a breakdown on the recording day of the third episode, but the identity of exactly who stepped into his shoes remains a tantalising mystery. It’s a shame that Hirsch could never work on Doctor Who again, because the opening episode of this story proves that he knew his business. However, Carole Ann Ford, for one, certainly found him a struggle to work with. Brace yourself for her vivid retelling of the “Why so maudlin?” story on this documentary. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The clips from The Reign of Terror used in the documentary look like they’ve been filmed through a sock and then scrubbed with wire wool, which brings home the miracle of the restoration work that has been done to the episodes as presented on this DVD. When Lemaitre asks for “the execution list” at the prison, so clear is the picture, we can now see through the back of the sheet of paper that it is neatly titled EXECUTION LIST. Later, he asks for “the execution figures”. Equally neatly: EXECUTION FIGURES. Say what you like about Robespierre, but he kept tidy paperwork. However, there is a small price to be paid for this new clarity. Now, for the first time, we can spot a member of the production team lurking in the background of the first episode. Or perhaps he’s another time traveller, more skilled at staying out of trouble than our lot.

Another tremendous set of ‘Info Text’ subtitles really brings home the magic that was being worked in Studio G at Lime Grove in the summer of ‘64. Doctor Who had been in continuous production for a year, and there were still ten more weeks to go before a break. Every Friday between 8.30pm and 9.45, in a space about the size of a Sainsbury’s Local, another episode would be staged like a play, with even the incidental music played live into the studio. The subtitles take us through every clever trick the team used to weave their adventure in space and time. One favourite detail is that, on Friday 14 August 1964, the day William Hartnell recorded the Doctor’s great promise (“Our destiny is in the stars. Let’s go search for it.”), producer Verity Lambert finally pinned down BBC Controller of Programmes Donald Baverstock and secured a commitment to Doctor Who’s future. 13 more episodes, with an option for 13 more. And – though he never know it – an option for 722 more. And counting.

The audio commentary brings forth some new voices – Jeffrey Wickham (Webster), Neville Smith (D’Argenson) and the great Ronald Pickup, who plays the treacherous physician – with a well-prepped Toby Hadoke on hand to get the best out of them. Another commentary, fascinating in a different way, runs parallel to the long-lost fifth episode, and features ‘missing episode hunters’ Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris.

Morris sounds like a hero for our times. As with many Doctor Who fans of a certain age, the habit of ticking Target books from a list fostered a natural desire to collect the set, to fill the gaps. But when, in 1981, DWM published a list of Doctor Who episodes missing from the BBC Archive, his world was rocked. We all share the sense of dismay that there are these great holes in our common history, but Morris is resolved to bloody well do something about it. As an adult, his work on an offshore oil rig has taken him around Africa. Now, with that experience, he’s formed a company to work with TV archives around the world to help preserve their material.

A recent article in DWM reminds us that many of these archives are in very dangerous parts of the world. There are Home Office Advisory notices issued against travel to the likes of Libya, Uganda and Ethiopia – all of which once broadcast The Reign of Terror and many other lost episodes. But Morris seems determined to leave no stone unturned. “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario,” he says. There’s such a wonderful emotional through-line to this; from the boy who loved Target books to the man knocking on the door of an old TV station down a hot and humid back street in Nairobi or Lusaka. ‘Raiders of the Lost Archive’ is the old cliché headline for a ‘missing episodes’ story, but never has the heroic, exotic sense of it felt more true than here. You feel that if those episodes are there to be found, then Morris is the man who’ll find them.

The Ambassadors of Death

2 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

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dvd-ambasadors‘Exile’ is too grand a description for the sentence handed down to the Doctor at the end of his original trial. Aside from changing his face – which admittedly could be argued to be a form of capital punishment – all the Time Lords really do is wheelclamp the Doctor’s ship and so deny him access to his favourite of his usual four dimensions. However, while our hero can no longer trip through time, his new incarnation still thrusts out unceasingly in every remaining direction. The first thing he does is to take a vehicle without the owner’s consent – a crime for which he has form, to say the least – after which he barely sits still for a moment. And in the seven-episode adventures that dominate his first year on Earth, we see him explore, in turn, all three dimensions still available to him. To meet the Silurians, he plunges down into the ground. Later, he’ll shimmy sideways into a parallel reality. And this week – to meet the Ambassadors of Death – he rockets straight up into the sky.

These three seven-parters are some of the most measured and mature Doctor Who you can find for your money, although there’s no denying that Ambassadors is the least of them. In being obliged to do more than merely vamp their way to a deferred climax, these longer-than-usual adventures each bridge, like a sonata, to a middle development section that takes us somewhere new; into a darker, minor key. Think of The Silurians and Inferno, with their sidesteps into plague and fiery apocalypse. Ambassadors flips the form. Much of the story is as gloomy and grounded as Doctor Who gets. But in its central digression, it’s all spaceships, hypnosis, trippy Chromakey and a wafty alien who means well but is tragically misunderstood. At this point, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks must have shared a look of mutual understanding. The counterpoint for Ambassadors goes on to become the major repeating refrain for the rest of the Third Doctor’s era.

We have to be careful about describing any Doctor Who adventure as realistic, especially if it tells the story of manned missions to Mars launched from Hampshire in the depths of winter, controlled by a staff roughly the size of that you’d find in a Tesco Metro. But Ambassadors was imagined as taking place a good decade after the time it was made; and in 1970, the idea of delivering an Englishman to Mars would not have seemed so wildly optimistic. Sadly, the world has rather let us down on that score, but the vision of the day-after-tomorrow offered by this adventure remains more readily believable than the T-Mat network, the Gravitron or UNIT’s flying flagship Valiant. Indeed, Ambassadors would prove plausible in an immediate and unique way. On the 13th of April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded on board the service module of Apollo 13, the USA’s third manned mission to the moon. The world held its breath as Commander James Lovell and his crew fought to improvise a new air filtration system and bring the command capsule safely back to Earth. Episode 5 of The Ambassadors of Death, broadcast five days later, saw the Doctor blast off into space, and to his seemingly inevitable death in a sabotaged capsule. These days, it would be surely pulled from the schedule for too closely mirroring a real-life tragedy. It’s a peculiar tribute to Ambassadors’ spirited struggle for realism; a struggle that gives this story a special charm, and makes it a refreshing diversion from Doctor Who’s more familiar forays into the fantastic.

This struggle for realism isn’t shared by every aspect of the production to quite the same degree, however. Take British Space Command for example, where controller Ralph Cornish is in charge of the Recovery 7 mission, dispatched to rescue the crew of the ill-fated Mars Probe 7. Cornish is played by Ronald Allen, who become better known in the 70s as Crossroads’ dishy David Hunter; a performance that would go on to inspire the character of Mr Clifford in Victoria Wood’s tribute to TV melodrama, Acorn Antiques. And so it is that one can’t help but relish a retrospective whiff of Mr Clifford about Mr Cornish (“Did you get bored of Geneva, Brigadier? Or did Geneva get bored of you?”). While issuing commands, Allen keeps his eyes fixed on some distant horizon, as if in steadfast expectation of a bus that’s never going to come. Later in the story, when choosing fuel for his rocket, he has to say: “What about reducing the G by mixing K and M3?” and Allen is so endearingly earnest, we truly believe he’s formulating the next giant leap for mankind. Somewhat less convincing is the mission’s chief scientist, Dr Bruno Taltalian, who comes with an outrrrageous Franche eggsant and facial hair so evidently false that when he first removes his glasses you expect his beard to go with them.

TheAmbassadorsofDeath1-7avi_0001704The Doctor is watching the Recovery 7 mission on TV at UNIT HQ. He’s ripped out the TARDIS’s control console for a good tinker in his laboratory. Or at least we assume this is the case. The more whimsical might note that there’s nothing to say that this isn’t a new design of the TARDIS control room. With its flock wallpaper, stained glass and Meissen porcelain, it has a Jules Verne, fin de siècle decadence that rather suits our time traveller. It’s certainly a more homely environment for the Doctor than the TARDIS’s current TV incarnation, which looks like the inside of a migraine. Also offering a new look is his assistant Liz Shaw, who this week is exhibiting a wig of such extravagant proportion she could surely be slingshot head first into the offside of the Hoover Dam and walk away unscathed. Without doubt, Liz is the most glamorous research scientist ever to have graced the corridors of Doctor Who. One of her five degrees from Cambridge must have been in Applied Funky Fashion. After she’s kidnapped later in the story, the Brigadier reports: “I’ve issued Miss Shaw’s description to every police force in the country.” That must have been some conversation. “What’s that? Any distinguishing features? Well. A huge white hat. Miniskirt. Knee-high white boots… Yes, like Yoko Ono on her wedding day. Last seen in the sort of car you find the clowns driving at the circus. Oh, and she can look surprisingly mannish from a distance. And did I mention the big ginger wig? Hello? Are you still there?”

A screeching transmission from Mars Probe 7 brings the Doctor to Space Command and straight into the story’s best scene – well, its best non-action scene – as the Doctor insists that the signal is a coded message, and bullies Cornish through to the logical conclusion that a second signal must be a reply from Earth. The Doctor is so wildly pompous you want to stand up and cheer, and the Brigadier gets to play what will become Jo Grant’s role, hinting to the Doctor that he might get further by at least feigning some manners and respect for the local hierarchy. Set against the resolutely modernist backdrop of the control room, the Doctor seems positively reactionary. “I never did trust those things!” he huffs about Taltalian’s computer. And when the Frenchman – revealed to be a double agent – demands a vital data reel, the Doctor even seems to call upon supernatural powers, as the tape vanishes before our very eyes. “Zis is no time fer conjerin’ tricks,” insists Taltalian, and you can’t help but agree. “That was simply transmigration of object,” smarms the Doctor. “There’s a great deal of difference between that and real science, you know.” It’s one small moment, but so contrary to the spirit of Doctor Who that it makes you want to climb into your television set, crawl back 40 years, and give everyone involved a firm slap about the face with a stiff halibut. What’s especially galling is that Episode 1 has already offered a plausible set-up for this tomfoolery, thanks to a faulty TARDIS component which has the Doctor and Liz vanishing and reappearing in exactly the same way. Couldn’t the Doctor have had that in his pocket?

Perhaps this was a detail lost in the serial’s troubled journey from story to screen. The scripts for Ambassadors are the work of four writers – the credited David Whitaker, plus Malcolm Hulke, script editor Terrance Dicks and his assistant Trevor Ray. It’s thanks to Dicks in particular that the thing coheres at all, but due to this troubled development Ambassadors never quite comes into focus, never quite builds a momentum. But while it fails to make the most of its potential, it certainly delivers its share of kinetic energy, principally in three wonderful action sequences cooked up by director Michael Ferguson and Derek Ware’s stunt crew Havoc.

In Episode 1, UNIT tracks the source of the transmission to Mars Probe 7 to an abandoned warehouse. The baddies, though briefed not to kill anyone, come out all guns blazing, and soon bodies are crashing through tea chests as stuntmen boldly trampoline hither and yon. Somewhere in the Home Counties must be found the Tomb of the Unknown UNIT Soldier; a massive cenotaph topped by a simple relief of Pat Gorman. Meanwhile, as bullets ricochet around the Brigadier, he falls into a kind of blood frenzy, blasting away in all directions, before it all ends in a wonderfully butch and sweaty stand-off. This probably wasn’t the evening when the Brigadier went home, bounced daughter Kate on his knee and told her his hippy idea about letting the science lead the military.

There’s more action, and better, in Episode 2. Recovery 7 has crashed back to Earth – supposedly with the rescued astronauts aboard – but the villains hijack the UNIT convoy taking the capsule back to Space Command. A helicopter swoops in. Smoke bombs boom and belch. Riders are thrown from motorbikes as they slew sideways in the mud. A soldier briefly clings to one of the skids of the chopper and, while in flight, tries to wrench open the door – but then drops and tumbles down a ravine. In our modern era, Doctor Who, with generous budgets and all the artistry and processing power of The Mill, delivers many a thrilling action sequence. But we still know green screen when we see it – in 2012, just as in 1970 – and so it is that no one else, to this day, has managed to convey the same sense of true and present danger as Havoc at their most fearless. In Episode 3, Liz Shaw is chased pell-mell across a rugby pitch by two heavies, and then, played at key moments by stuntman Roy Scamell, along a weir. For the cliffhanger, Liz tumbles to her seeming-certain doom in the torrent of water below. It all looks mind-bogglingly dangerous, and we shall never see its like again. It’s also the moment when Liz Shaw proves herself a premier league assistant; by keeping her hat firmly jammed on her head throughout, and for giving one of her pursuers a proper wallop of a backhander.

But for all that Ambassadors enjoys getting out and about, it certainly chooses some gloomy terrain. It’s all mist and mud, slurry pit and slag heap. In one chilling scene, two grey-faced corpses are taken to a concrete works, dragged from the back of a van and slowly buried under a landslide of mixed aggregates. However, despite all this gritty action, even by Episode 4 there’s barely been enough plot to fill an egg cup, and what there is seems to pull in every possible direction. The villain of the piece is revealed to be the cold fish General Carrington, who is at times underplayed almost to nothing by John Abineri, which is what makes him so forgettable. The General, we learn, was part of the Mars Probe 6 mission – presumably to investigate the effect of zero gravity upon toupee tape – and saw his crewmate killed by aliens. Exactly how the cause of this death was explained away is anyone’s guess; certainly UNIT knows nothing about it.

originalCarrington has gone on to kidnap three alien ambassadors as part of a plan to provoke Earth into launching a pre-emptive strike against what he believes to be possible invaders, but who the Doctor knows to be essentially benign. Carrington’s chief lackey is Reegan – a more engaging performance from William Dysart – whose principal ambition seems to be to use the alien ambassadors as history’s most high-maintenance team of bank robbers. Quite why Reegan and Carrington cart the space-suited beings back and forth in a van just to commit the odd murder is entirely unfathomable, but it does give us the story’s signature visual moment as one of the ambassadors stalks towards us out of the low evening sun, the light flaring and spotting across his sinister silhouette. Michael Ferguson had pulled the same trick with an Ice Warrior on Hampstead Heath a year earlier, but here he nails it. It’s as beautifully contrived a shot as any you’ll find in the whole history of Doctor Who.

The disconnection of motive and action is, again, the result of the fractured writing process. It’s also why time seems to move at different speeds in different places. At one point, Liz escapes her captors merely to run straight into Bruno Taltalian, who has just appeared in the previous scene, set many miles away. But here he is in a car, suddenly dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and with nary a hint of a French accent.

When the end comes, it comes in a rush, and not with a bang but a whimper. Carrington is poised to unveil his aliens to the world, until the Doctor and UNIT pile in to stop him, and then the General simply hands over his gun and submits himself for arrest. His motivation turns out to be madness brought on by extreme xenophobia – or possibly vice versa – and though this might explain his wildly illogical scheme, it’s not exactly satisfying. From the aliens themselves we don’t hear another peep. And although our hero shows suitably Doctorish compassion toward Carrington, even he seems entirely indifferent as to what might happen next, and casually saunters off the side of the set.

This lack of engagement with the emotions of its characters is why only the swagger and flash of  Ambassadors tends to linger in the memory. Or perhaps it’s the fact that so much of the story features hopeless conspirators waving guns and shouting things like: “I need you to raid a number of isotope stores!”

Ambassadors is a fundamentally schizophrenic adventure. With its guns and gangsters on one side, and rocket ships and exploding briefcases on the other, it can’t seem to decide if wants to be The Ipcress File or Joe 90. But, in much the same way as The Mind Robber, The Happiness Patrol, Love & Monsters, or any of our other favourite eccentrics, The Ambassadors of Death pushes at the boundaries of what we might normally expect of Doctor Who, and should always be cherished for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

deathSHIPLINK-1The production documentary, Mars Probe 7: Making the Ambassadors of Death, opens to urgent strings and stock footage of Apollo 13, and seems set to investigate this adventure’s historical context. You’re braced for Dr Matthew Sweet stalking the corridors of the Science Museum in Dr River Song’s spacesuit; but, alas, we are denied that pleasure. Instead, the highlight is footage from a 1970 documentary about Havoc, which, accompanied by new interviews with the boys themselves, delivers a dizzying whirl of masculinity, derring-do and – let’s be frank – unexpected homoeroticism. After a hard day on the Doctor Who set, the Havoc boys would enjoy a right old rave-up. They’d drink together, go dancing together, or merely share a shower and a sauna. Footage from those communal ablutions allows us to carefully assess Derek Ware’s claim that “Roy Scammell has extremely good legs”, and much more besides.

The stuntmen are also the stars of an excellent commentary, where they take centre stage for the action-heavy second episode. We learn that Alan Chuntz – who spent much of the 70s disappearing head first over Jon Pertwee’s left shoulder – also taught kung fu to the Kray twins, had an uncanny resemblance to Charles Aznavour, and drove a London taxi in his spare time. Come to mention it, this section of the commentary, so thick with avuncular Cockney charm, is rather like finding yourself discussing Doctor Who with your cab driver.  “These days, they’re defying the laws of physics with all that CGI, ain’t they?” opines Derek Ware from the driver’s seat, or possibly hanging from the front bumper. You nod in agreement. This is from a man who knows how important it is to respect the laws of physics. They’ll always get you in the end, especially if you’re tumbling head over heels for Jon Pertwee.

Toby Hadoke moderates the commentary with his customary skill and insight. We must be grateful for whatever quirk of scheduling led to it being taped so far ahead of release. The fact that three contributors – Nick Courtney, Caroline John and Peter Halliday – have died since its recording is a sobering reminder of the great blanket of silence that is slowly unrolling over the history of Doctor Who. And then Terrance Dicks refers to The Sarah Jane Adventures in the present tense, and your breath catches once more.

Ultimately, however, the great, great joy of this release is to see The Ambassadors of Death returned to full colour for the first time since 1970. The sharp little cruelty of this story is that while the first episode survives in perfect condition, the rest has had to be recoloured and reassembled from a wide range of lesser material by the Restoration Team and associates. This task required astonishing ingenuity and invention, and untold hours of tedious amendment and correction by hand. The results can never be perfect, and the finished product is, by necessity, a patchwork. In Episode 3, for example, Liz Shaw’s wig gives off a comforting golden glow, like a Belisha beacon on a foggy night. But it’s nothing short of a miracle that there’s colour here at all. And it’s a shocking omission – scandalous, in fact – that those responsible are not credited anywhere on the DVD or the packaging. And so: thank you, Richard Russell, for your dedicated work on colour recovery; thank you, Peter Crocker, for the painstaking effort required in pulling it all together; thank you, Jonathan Wood, for the final grading; and thank you, Mark Ayres, for your exacting sound restoration.

As all these wonderful episodes are restored to us, one is left gawping open-mouthed in awe at quite how bloody clever people can be.

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The Rescue and The Romans

16 Jul

A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009. By this point, I was starting to massively exceed my allotted word count. And I’ve only got worse. This one is 1,800 words, and I knew I was pushing my luck. I recently submitted 3,400 words for the ‘Earth Story’ double pack. I’m very naughty – and Tom Spilsbury is a very kind editor!

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If you want to understand how Doctor Who became a smash success, then forget the Daleks, shelve your Beginning box set, and instead reach for The Rescue and The Romans. Here, in the oval of a Venn diagram labelled with the names of writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner, is where the programme we love was born. BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman may have asked for a show, he might even have named a show, but Whitaker and Spooner gave us The Show. With The Rescue, we see outgoing story editor Whitaker justify all the notes he gave to other, lesser writers, and prove that how he wanted it done was exactly how it should be done. Then Spooner, incoming story editor and genius writer of The Romans, gives the format one final tweak by allowing the Doctor to be cleverer, funnier, cooler – turning him into a hero we could cheer. Between them, Whitaker and Spooner created Doctor Who. They should have been thanked in the closing titles of each episode that followed. Their grandchildren should receive 10% of the sale of every Doctor Who DVD, dolly and duvet cover. It would still be the bargain of a lifetime, because we owe them everything.

The Rescue takes us to the planet Dido, where perky young Vicki and whingeing, pain-in-the-arse astronaut Bennett are the only survivors of a spaceship crash. As the pair await a lifeboat from Earth, they find themselves terrorised by a hideous alien beast called Koquillion. All spiky antennae, googly eyes and glittery accessories, Koquillion looks like the result of an unfortunate teleport accident involving a stag beetle and Danny La Rue. He claims to be Vicki and Bennett’s only protection against the other natives of Dido, who apparently murdered…

STOP! ‘Koquillion claims’? What shilly-shallying. ‘Who apparently murdered’? We simply can’t go on like this. You see, your reviewer had The Rescue spoiled for him by this very magazine when he was just eight years old – over a decade before he had a chance to see the episodes themselves – and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let history repeat. Not so very long ago, it would have been taken for granted that every DWM reader knew what happens in The Rescue. But today, there will be eight-year-olds cruising towards the next paragraph in blissful ignorance. If that’s you, and you’ve never read even the briefest synopsis of the story, then turn the page. Do not come back until you’ve watched the DVD. After three stars, and with just three words, it will be spoiled forever.

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Bennett is Koquillion. Having committed murder aboard ship, he’s covered his tracks by killing the rest of the crew. His disguise is to help sell the lie of homicidal natives to Vicki, who will ultimately act as his alibi. However, the fact that Bennett’s ultimate unmasking by the Doctor reminds us of Scooby Doo leads to that single, dreary criticism of The Rescue – that it is a ‘whodunnit’ with only one suspect. What utter rubbish. It’s no kind of whodunnit at all. To confirm this, your reviewer watched these episodes with a friend who knew nothing of the story, and had also just watched the previous 51 episodes, in order, for the first time. This took some organising by the way. From the start, our newcomer believed that Koquillion was an alien monster – and a beautifully-realised one compared to the Voord and the Sensorites. Only when Bennett’s room is found to be empty did he guess, at the exact moment Whitaker intended him to, that man and monster were one and the same. His response was brief and accurate: “That’s brilliant!”. Only by watching The Rescue this way, in its original context, can the immense ingenuity and wit of its story be properly appreciated. It’s a little work of genius.

A wish to redress this disservice may unbalance this box set review, but that’s not to say The Romans isn’t wonderful. Ambition is the watchword here, not just in the way it remains Doctor Who’s funniest story, but also thanks to its endearing aspiration to be a movie epic. Yes, resources are painfully limited – a fact most ably demonstrated when Ian’s slave galley founders on the Cape of Stock Footage, or when he’s threatened by some unlikely-looking lions (Felis Telecinius in the latin) – but it never stops the production team from trying.

The regular cast are at their very best, notably Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and William Hartnell as the Doctor. Guest star Derek Francis may be the focus of the fruity farce in episode three, but when he propositions Barbara – “Close your eyes, and Nero will give you a big surprise” – it’s Hill’s expert double-take that turns it into a thoroughly dirty joke.

Hartnell’s brilliant performance in The Romans is only ever bettered by his big scene in The Rescue. (It’s rare to find our lead more at ease in a sci-fi tale, but his confrontation with Bennett is sublime, with the Doctor’s bright little eyes dancing in the darkness.) The Romans feels less rehearsed, and so Hartnell takes his familiar Eric Morecambe approach to the dialogue – saying all the right words, but not necessarily in the right mountain goat. Although he’s far from alone in that. One of Doctor Who’s most tense moments comes when Michael Peake, playing slave master Tavius, slips up on a line and he and Hartnell look at each other in agonised silence for a long moment before our star saves him. You lift up in your seat as your buttocks clench in sympathetic discomfort.

Fumbles and stumbles included, these six stunning episodes form the template from which all future Doctor Who would be cut. You could compile a trailer for the entire series using clips from The Rescue alone. “We can travel anywhere in that old box,” says the Doctor proudly. “And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it!”

Even Hartnell, Doctor Who’s great champion, didn’t know how right he was.

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DVD EXTRAS

All praise must go to the Restoration Team for another expert clean-up job, another labour of love. The results are stunning, sometimes even surprising. You can now clearly see Ian actor William Russell sidling out of shot in the background of Sandy the Sand Beast’s cave, long before he’s due to emerge. Well, one presumes it’s Russell from his sharp suit, but this being the BBC of the sixties, it could equally well be the floor manager or the tea boy.

Mounting the Rescue is an excellent little documentary, perfectly straightforward but never dull. The star of the show is designer Raymond Cusick. Always so still and inscrutable, he’s like watching an Easter Island statue attend a job interview. Only when raw materials are mentioned does Cusick betray what by his standards must be a heady rush of emotion. Watch for when his eyes flash – well, widen by a millimetre – at the mention of “reeded hardboard”. Cusick is another of Doctor Who’s bona fide geniuses, and while his anecdotes may be on the dry side, this reviewer could listen to his measured modesty all day.

There’s an interesting detail hidden away and unacknowledged in the Photo Gallery. Production legend, restated in the documentary here, recounts how Jacqueline Hill came close to serious injury when a flare gun detonated prematurely in the first take of Barbara’s assassination of Sandy. But here’s a photograph showing the very moment of the explosion. It’s during a rehearsal, as Barbara removes the gun from a store cupboard. Zoom in to the picture and you can see how close the flash is to Hill’s face, and imagine how terrifying this must have been for her. With all that hair lacquer, she could have gone up like Vesuvius. It also brings home the craziness of Doctor Who’s as-live production at the time, with actresses expected to stumble through long takes with primed explosives in their trembling hands.

The production documentary for The Romans is a bewildering affair. The Doctor Who material is smart and informative, but then we suddenly have Anthony Andrews discussing his own performance as Nero in the eighties TV potboiler A.D., and Christopher Biggins ruminating on I, Claudius. It leaves a nagging sense of a programme maker either bored of talking only about Doctor Who, or worse, ashamed of it. Input from the outside world is always welcome, but this sort of thing can only work if, at the very least, someone has the balls to show Andrews and Biggins a clip from The Romans and tease out an opinion, however derisory. The link must be directly made; otherwise the whole production appears schizophrenic. Oddly, you can find an example of how to do this properly within the same documentary, as Dr Mark Bradley, lecturer in Ancient Histories at Nottingham University, outlines the true history of Caesar Nero, as far as it is known, and then discusses what The Romans gets right and wrong. Perfect! It’s a shame Dr Mark’s particular field of expertise precludes future DVD appearances – at least until The Myth Makers turns up – as your reviewer would love to see him again. Dinner would be nice.

Girls! Girls! Girls!, a look at Doctor Who’s plucky lady helpers of the sixties, offers groovy graphics, entirely superficial content, and a narrator struggling to finish some epic sentences before they choke her. What should have been an interesting study of the development of the companion proves no more than a collection of hit-and-miss anecdotes from the actresses concerned, who are rather tactlessly presented in front of giant blow-ups of their younger, smoother selves. Reaching The War Games in 1969, we’re told, “This coincided with the close of the most memorable decade of the 20th century”. What thoughtless tosh. Tell that to anyone who lived through the Blitz.

From the same producer, but better in every way, is Dennis Spooner – Wanna Write a Television Series?, which discusses the writer’s Doctor Who work within the context of his long and brilliant TV career. Spooner was a king of pulp drama, but pulp with brains, heart and guts. His sometime writing partner Brian Clemens offers a moving personal tribute, while Who writer Rob Shearman provides a typically insightful commentary. However, his assertion that The Romans is the best story of the black-and-white era cannot go without challenge. Shearman’s nearly right, but it’s not even the best story in this box set – but only because it’s paired with some fine competition.

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